In the spring of 1991, war was looming in Bosnia. Fighting had already erupted in Croatia. Locals in Sarajevo announced a demonstration against the Yugoslav Army to be held in front of the parliament building. As the program director of Sarajevo TV, I met with protest organizers to discuss covering the event. We agreed on live coverage for one hour (I had to break away to take a live feed of a sporting event in Barcelona).”
But when the cameras went off after an hour, the protesters turned on my television crew. I hurried to the scene to try and protect my journalists, but the angry crowd turned on me as well. A security officer pulled me out of the melee and hustled me into the safety of Prime Minister Jure Pelivan’s office.
Fast forward to this year, December 24. Just three days after Montenegro Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his deputy, Svetozar Marovic, resigned, local police arrested the mayor of Budva and 10 other people (including a brother of Marovic’s) on charges of corruption and organized crime. Budva is a pearl of Montenegro’s coast, a town where many wealthy Russians have purchased vacation homes. Both Djukanovic and Marovic have faced corruption accusations over the last decade, but no conclusive proof has emerged.
Earlier this month, on December 15, Swiss investigator Dick Marty announced his findings accusing Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci of heading an organized crime gang that trafficked in human organs, among other things, following the conflict with the Serbian Army in 1999.
Also this month, on December 10, former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was arrested in Austria. He is wanted in Croatia on charges of corruption and organized crime. An Austrian bank has accused him of money laundering.
And last month, former Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica was accused of hindering the investigation into the whereabouts of indicted war crimes suspect General Ratko Mladic. Those charges remain at the political level, and no legal case has been opened at this point.
Several cases concerning the misuse of government funds and corruption are pending against the former prime minister of the Bosnian Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, who is now the entity’s president, in Bosnian courts. The Sarajevo-based Center of Investigative Journalism (CIN) has submitted the results of its investigation into a new government building in Banja Luka. In 2005, Dodik was accused of the misuse of state funds, but a local court in Banja Luka acquitted him.
The CIN has presented findings that former Bosnian Federation Prime Minister Nedzad Brankovic paid $600 for an apartment worth $380,000. A Sarajevo court, however, rejected the charges.
Another former Bosnian Federation prime minister, Edhem Bicackic, and his deputy, Dragan Covic, are currently being investigated for corruption.
Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has not faced any court case, but opposition politicians have charged that his mother – a pensioner with no other known income – has purchased four apartments. He also placed several relatives in the state security agencies, building up a network the opposition has come to call “The Family.”
All of these prime ministers and other officials denounce the charges against them as political. Svetozar Marovic says the arrest of his brother was “politically motivated.” The former Croatian premier says his arrest is a “political witch hunt.” Dodik says those who launched the cases against him are acting “against Serbs.” Thaci says the Marty investigation is an assault on Kosovo’s interests. And so on, and so on.
As you can see, the cases demonstrate a pattern of crime and corruption at the highest levels across the Balkans. It is clear that in case after case, law enforcement agencies have not been fighting organized crime in the region, but have been in league with it. Crime networks seem to have been protected by governments and prime ministers throughout the region.
These corrupt elites tend to keep their ill-gotten fortunes in foreign banks. As a result, investment in their countries is minimal. State coffers are drained. There is almost nothing to steal anymore.
One possible solution for these countries is EU membership, where stricter rules might help turn back the tide of corruption. But the EU cannot afford the luxury of accepting “sick” countries in order to heal them. The lessons of Romania and Bulgaria have been well learned in Brussels – and the Balkan countries will have to pay the price.
These compromised politicians could do their countries a big favor by leaving political life, sending a message to the EU that the leaders in the Balkans are mature enough to put the interests of their countries ahead of their own political interests.
When I was taking shelter in Bosnian Prime Minister Jure Pelivan’s office back in 1991, I had a chance to speak with him. He told me that he could no longer control the situation in Bosnia. He was powerless. A few months later, he stepped down and retired. Today, he lives peacefully. When he reads the news from across the Balkans, I have no doubt he considers his decision to step down one of the wisest of his life.
Nenad Pejic is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL